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Rila Monastery is a seat of the Bulgarian orthodox religion. Nelle Nix in Bulgaria as a journalism graduate student, to teach at the new American University there. She's the writer; her husbandís the photojournalist. She had often visited the church in the town where they lived, Blagoevgrad. But they went to the monastery for Easter, with their 2-year-old daughter, because they wanted to spend the holiday at the seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox religion. You can get to the monastery, which is about 120 km south of Sofia, by car or bus. The road that takes you there winds its way up, up along the Rila River...

Postcard: A Different Kind of Easter

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Itís been seven years now since my husband and I spent a year teaching and living in Bulgaria. But even now, when I see a particular shade of pink in an Easter egg, Iím taken back to the Rila Monastery and the pink eggshells that littered the stony courtyard on a sunny Easter morning.

It was quiet on the Saturday we arrived. The gray stone walls rose fortresslike before us, but no one stopped us as we passed beneath the antlers that guarded the entrance.

Stepping into the courtyard, we paused in awe of the buildings. Stripes of black and white adorn archways everywhere and more stripes - these of dark red and white - decorate the domed church, which sits almost in the courtyardís center.

As a light spring rain fell, tourists and pilgrims alike wandered beneath the covered wooden walkways or ducked into the church. Inside, it seemed that every square inch of space was covered with vibrant frescoes - depicting scenes of rural life, saints floating on small clouds, and even a fiery Judgment Day. For a few leva, just pennies, believers bought beeswax candles to light in prayer. We joined them.

Up front, near a magnificent gilded iconostasis, or altar screen, a priest tended to a casket containing the remains of Ivan of Rila, whose followers founded the monastery. Nearly a thousand years ago, the hermit was known for his ability to exorcise demons and treat incurable illnesses. Even today, touching the cloth covering his remains is said to bring good health.

When we stepped back outside, the sun had broken through the clouds to show the snow-covered mountains surrounding the monastery. The courtyard began to fill with clusters of people. There were camera-toting tourists from Japan and Mormon missionaries from the United States.

But most of the people we met were Bulgarian. Including an elderly couple from a distant village.

One woman, Kalinka Kraev, was dressed head to toe in black. She carried a plastic bag that protected both a Bible she had just bought and a shroud to be used as a cover for her body when she died. In the old days, she told us, it used to be that anyone who visited the monastery - whatever the season - was considered to be a blessed person.

By the time the service began at 11, the courtyard was crowded with hundreds of people holding lighted candles, smoking, talking, laughing.

Inside, we managed to work ourselves up to the front, where three seminary students stood together and began chanting.

They started off tentatively, and a few minutes later a priest entered from a small door to tell them to pick up the pace. And so, they began again, flipping the pages of several thick books back to the start.

About a half hour into the service, a priest urged the chanters again to pick up the pace. By that time, they had been joined by an older gentlemen who was short in stature but incredibly rich in voice.

Near midnight, the service moved outdoors.

With a priest chanting ďChrist is risen, Christ is Risen,Ē the five bells in the monasteryís 14th century tower began to toll.

Sunday morning found the sunny courtyard dotted with families posing after baptisms for smiling photographs. At a fountain nearby, local farmers huddled around a black-robed priest who blessed lambs that might end up as part of the dayís feast.

At the ancient tower, a souvenir booth occupied the first floor. We joined mothers consulting daughters there as they fingered icons and walking canes, dolls or silver and gold cross necklaces.

It seemed that nearly everyone - tourist and believer alike - bought something to remember that Easter weekend at the Rila Monastery.

We picked up a tiny painting of Ivan of Rila that is now tucked away in a jewelry box on my dresser. But beyond that, we carry with us always the sound of the bells, the smell of the beeswax candles and that image of the pink eggshells against the moss-lined stones of the monasteryís courtyard.

For the Savvy Traveler, Iím Nelle Nix, dying Easter eggs in Portland, Oregon, and remembering the holiday at the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria.




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